Buffalo is an underdog. It’s still battling its old branding as a city known for sports teams and cold weather. But, places change.
While we were busy clinging to old stereotypes and snow jokes, Buffalo has been undergoing an extreme makeover. And I don’t use the word “extreme” as hyperbole. Don’t believe me? I encourage you to spend at least a weekend in Buffalo and see for yourself.
A Weekend in Buffalo
For starters check out my latest video on Buffalo:
The New and Improved Buffalo, New York
The entire waterfront has been revitalized. Locals and visitors come here in droves to listen to music, walk on the boardwalk, go boating, kayaking, and even water-biking. Neglected neighborhoods are being rejuvenated with micro breweries and indie coffee shops which are taking over old, vacant warehouses.
I’m neither a sports fan nor a cold weather fan and I love Buffalo. To be fair, no, I have not visited in February yet. But I have now been here three times in as many years. And as a traveler who still has many more places to go, that is saying something.
This is not your father’s Buffalo
“We’re taking what Buffalo already has and is uniquely ours and turning it into our top attractions,” Brian Hayden, communications manager for Visit Buffalo, told me on our way into town from the airport.
As a travel writer, of course I meet and often work with tourism folks. Even just talking to my friends at Buffalo Tourism is uplifting. Can you imagine working for a destination that used to be such a tough sell? I was told that parents expected and even encouraged their kids to move away to create a better life for themselves. Like many rust belt towns, Buffalo was in a depression and so were its inhabitants. And now, living in and working for the city is exciting and fulfilling.
Today, Buffalo is telling a new story about rebirth. In just the last five years, it’s undergone a massive reboot. State money has been funneled here to revive the waterfront, infrastructure, and encourage entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Millennials are moving back home to start new businesses. It’s an affordable town in which to experiment and create. New boutique hotels and restaurants are springing up like dandelions in the spring.
What to Do in Buffalo
Buffalo is a great escape for a weekend. In fact, I highly recommend a stay here with a day trip to Niagara Falls rather than the other way around.
For the uninitiated, Buffalo is a classic American architecture city. Its similarity to Chicago is another reason I feel at home here. Three great American architects shaped the city: H.H. Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Sullivan. Not to mention buildings designed by Eero Sarinaan, Daniel Burnham, and parks and gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. You may know Olmsted from New York City’s Central Park, but here he designed a system of parks and parkways that was the first of its kind in the nation and represents one of his most extensive.
A good way to take it all in is by taking a tour. There are a number of tours—walking, biking and boating. I did the 90-minute Open Air Buffalo tour given by the extremely knowledgeable architect and president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture, Paul McDonnell. On the tour, you see some landmark building gems as well as charming neighborhoods like Elmwood Village with Victorian and Queen Anne-style homes or the Delaware District with the jaw-dropping mansions of “Millionaire’s Row.”
Food & Drink
The brand new Terrace at Delaware Park is sits overlooking Hoyt lake in Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Delaware Park. It is the perfect, bucolic setting for an al fresco evening of contemporary global cuisine and shared plates.
Buffalo Proper is an urban restaurant with exposed brick and a lively vibe offering a menu full of local ingredients and tasty, craft cocktails.
Chez Ami is a new restaurant inside the newly opened, glitzy Curtiss Hotel. The 200+ seat casual yet upscale restaurant features a throwback revolving bar and tiled, year-round patio. They feature small plates, fresh pasta, pizza and seafood dishes.
For contemporary southern chow, head to Toutant. It’s the spot in town for a taste of creole or Cajun inside a loft-like setting. Favorites include fresh Gulf shellfish, buttermilk fried chicken, and Southern favorites like jambalaya, house-smoked sausages, and to-die-for cast iron skillet cornbread.
Founded by three women, BreadHive is Buffalo’s only worker-owned bakery and cafe. On a Saturday morning, there was a line out the door of the cute space with its tin-ceilings, white-paneled walls and funny dog paintings. Definitely try their sourdough bagels. I recommend the salt and rosemary.
Five Points is another bakery to hit up for breakfast. Known for their locally sourced whole grain breads, try any one of their toast dishes for a brunchy treat.
Breweries are popping up all over town like the weeds in the abandoned lots they took over. Young entrepreneurs have returned home to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They are proud to help revitalize a place they once fled.
Much of Buffalo’s progress has been attributed to something local planners are calling beer-oriented development. A local beer and distilling revolution has helped remake the city and introduce a welcome influx of new craft breweries. In just the last couple of years, nearly 20 breweries and distilleries have opened — From Hydraulic Hearth, which has become a gathering spot in the newly revitalized Larkin Square, to Resurgence Brewing Company which has helped breathe life into Buffalo’s West Side.
Nowhere is Buffalo’s rebirth more obvious than in the lively area called Canalside.
The vibrant energy here is palpable. The waterfront is brimming with activities like water biking, kayaking, outdoor yoga, and live music. Canalside has quickly become a hot spot in New York’s second largest city.
RiverWorks was built in and around old grain silos boasting the first brewery created inside a silo. This brand new mega-entertainment complex on the river has a restaurant, bar and waterside beer garden. Plus there’s Pickleball, Roller derby, and new rock-climbing walls on the silos themselves.
Feels like home…
After a few summer days here, I realized what clicks for me in Buffalo. It feels like home.
What makes a place feel like home? It’s different for everyone of course. But I think it has to do with familiarity. I love Elmwood Village because it reminds me of some leafy neighborhoods in Chicago with quaint 100-year old homes and gardens and its walkable, bike-able atmosphere.
The city’s friendly vibe leans more to the Midwest than toward the northeast (Buffalo is much closer to Cleveland than it is to New York City). The food scene is innovative yet approachable.
Charming neighborhoods. Real people. Real food. This is what I like.
Where to Stay in Buffalo
I stayed in the stunning Hotel Henry, designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Once an ominous insane asylum, it’s now billed as an urban resort thanks to the grounds and gardens that surround it, originally designed by Olmsted.
There are 88 guest rooms and suites and uncommon public spaces carved out of the unique character of the original building layout. Rooms start at $169.00 per night.
The brand new Curtiss Hotel is another gem that has opened in a refurbished landmark building. It’s become a bit of a hot spot with it’s revolving bar and airy rooftop lounge with views of the city. Rates range from $169-349 per night.
Disclosure: During my time in Buffalo, I was a guest of Visit Buffalo Niagara. As always all opinions are my own.